Etsy.com is about to get a whole lot more interactive, as a simple printer could bring multitouch functionality to paper craft. Researchers at Saarland University and MIT Media Lab have announced a new, printable sensor film with multitouch that is designed to keep working even after it’s trimmed into different shapes using normal scissors. The challenge set by these researchers was to give people the ability to use touch controls in creative ways in their everyday lives. These researchers see cutting as the key to being user-friendly, since anyone with scissors and some patience can cut paper to fit a flat shape. This technology was their attempt to shift the paradigm in design toward electronics that are “robust to cutting.”
The printable sensor film can be cut apart thanks to the wiring structure. A simple inkjet printer can lay down the tracks of conductive ink which link the sensor nodes on the paper to the controller at the center. A conventional wiring structure would work well enough when intact, but severing any one wire would have a ripple-effect that affected other connected sensors. Their novel wiring strategy sees every node served by its own wire, so cutting any wire will only affect a single portion of the whole. This means that users can dynamically define the edges of sensitivity for the touch-paper without lowering the fidelity of the uncut sections. So long as the central node is intact, these sheets should only be able to fail across 1/32 of its surface at any one moment.
They have multiple such wiring layouts in mind to support different sorts of shapes — for instance a simple star pattern can’t deal with any doubling back when cutting, but the tree topology can (a bit). The cuttable aspect does have its limitations and an unwary user (for instance a child) could very easily slice themselves out of a touch functionality in a large portion of their interface. This is mitigated somewhat by some redundancy in wiring, but you will still need to do a little planning as to what layout to pick for what shape, and you’ll probably want to cut with the wires facing up, just to be sure.
The paper’s creators envision it being laid over all manner of objects, like watches and tables. The latter of these two seems far more believable; it’s a flat surface with a simple shape, it doesn’t flex or move around, and since it’s in the home it can attach to all manner of power and output devices. Since it won’t hit the market for three or four years at the earliest, there’s a chance that it could even soak up a little wireless power. Something like a watch strap, though, presents more problems.
It’s also unclear what sort of connectivity they envision for their newly minted touch interfaces. Once I’ve carefully cut out and stickied a touch surface onto my table, how is its output translated to useful control? If, say, I want to touch a portion of my table to officially ring in with a check in poker, I would need a fairly sophisticated little app running somewhere to receive, understand, and correctly obey that command. Easy integration with common operating systems is a good start, but true creativity with this product will demand more than just putting Android settings controls on a watch strap.
Taking the commands in is one thing, but outputting to the full array of devices a user might dream up is the hard part. If this technology has a serious flaw in its premise, it’s that the audience likely won’t have the time or ability to make their perfectly formed touch-screen actually do anything. Pre-made apps make far more sense, but run directly against the improvisational, “on the fly” uses they want to promote. Regardless, the possibilities for this new paradigm are great indeed, especially for the more enthusiastic side of the DIY movement. For the crowd that enjoys Arduino and Raspberry Pi, this could just be Christmas.